Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Maybe I'm not a Lutheran

I have posted some thoughts about whether I am a Lutheran, over on The Thinklings blog here. I have just finished reading Martin Marty's short biography of Martin Luther (in the "Penguin Lives" series), and I am left with some serious questions. (I am also left with enormous dissatisfaction with the book: I learned nothing about Martin Luther the person, and I learned very little new at all. Even given that the audience is presumed to be relatively uninitiated into the Reformation reality, I think this doesn't do a very good job of it.)

At base, I question whether Luther and his heirs spent and spend way too much time proclaiming "salvation" and way too little time fleshing that out with answers to such questions as "So what?", "What's that got to do with the way I live my life?", "Do I have to obey the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount?"

My good friend Rob helped "facilitate" my freedom to say what I have been implying for a long time: I don't doubt the good news that God has saved me; I believe and rely on that assurance. That is not my concern.

Such questions as I raise above are my questions. And I have such questions because I read the New Testament to say much more than that "salvation" is a kind of self-protection for eternity. It speaks about the nationhood of the people of God (1 Peter); it speaks constantly about the corporate nature of "salvation"; it embraces all of creation in its visions of the End Times. In this it echoes the Old Testament discussions of salvation. And it sets the Church up as a kind of Chosen People in parallel with Israel (old meaning)/Judaism.

That such a proclamation will have ethical implications seems both natural and revealed. And Lutheranism's claims to have rediscovered the Gospel for the Church should be aware of that. But I don't see very much evidence that it is. Luther was obsessed with his own salvation. He eventually "heard" von Staupitz (why aren't there more works by and about him available from Amazon.com?), but it seems from Marty's biography, especially, that he never really "heard" him -- i.e., he didn't take the Vicar General's counsel to heart.

(Frankly, I think it tragic that he didn't have available to him a good anti-depressant; that would have helped smooth out some of his crises and may have helped him see through to the wider dimensions. Get that: I'm presuming both to diagnose Luther's depression and to suggest that I see things in better perspective than he. I don't deny the charge; but I do recognize the hubris in so writing -- but then I take Luther as my rhetorical model.)

In any event, you can check out my musings over at The Thinklings blog. Rebuke, ridicule, criticize, correct me. That's what these blog-things are all about.


Anonymous said...

So maybe you aren't a Lutheran? Maybe you're a Dwightist. I think so many of your perspectives are unique. Or at least the combination of them is.

Maurice Frontz said...

So, Br. Dwight, Luther didn't preach about good works? Check out again the Christmas postils. "Don't come to me and say that you would have given the Christ-child a place. You have Christ in your neighbor, give him a place. Serve him." Review the statement in The Freedom of a Christian: "Christians are perfectly dutiful slaves, subject to all."

Reread the Ten Commandments in the Small and Large Catechism, especially when Luther insists that God intends that we serve our neighbor's bodily needs, that we uphold our neighbor's marriage, that we refuse to speak uncharitably of our neighbors. Is not this ethical instruction no less demanding in its own way than the Sermon on the Mount itself?

Does not Luther tell the peasants that they must not revolt against the government, that in doing that they would not be seeking God's kingdom, but their own, basing his teaching on the Sermon on the Mount? Does he not argue that Christians have a responsibility to educate children, so that they too can read and receive the benefits of the Gospel? Does he not bitterly complain in the preface to the LC that "since the Gospel has been restored the people have mastered the fine art of abusing liberty"?

Camassia hits it right on the head on her blog when she talks about a giving that is truly self-giving versus a giving that is selfish - I think Paul may have thought of it first.

For me, the miracle of Bonhoeffer is that he seems to have read Luther almost exactly right - he refused to take Luther's proclamation of justification out of the context of discipleship. Reread the chapter on Costly Grace in your AF edition of Discipleship. It's probably a surer guide to Luther's thought and its distortions than Martin Marty, whatever, his qualifications.

The problem may not be with Luther or his thought. Perhaps it is that we are deaf.


Dwight P. said...

But, Chip, I don't deny anything that you say. I think my problem is not that I'm not akin to Brother Martin, but that I am not akin to the movement that bears his name. It seems to me that what is called "Lutheranism" has so ideologized his original insights as to render many of them unrecognizable as "Luther-an." I think the Finnish research is calling a lot of that to light.

It is for me the stunning example of what I am saying that in the two-volume set, Christian Dogmatics (yes: edited by Braaten and Jenson!), the book-length chapter on "the Christian Life" (where one might expect to find a discussion of ethics and discipleship and sanctification and the like) is Foerde's treatise on justification by faith. Even my teacher and my friend (whose judgment I have a lot of trouble ever doubting) did not include a chapter on sanctification or "growth in grace."

It's that sort of thing that makes me question my "Lutheranism," not a narrow vision of Old Man's own theology.

But, Dash, I don't want to be a "Dwightist." For one thing that makes me sound like a camp follower of Dwight Moody, and I've seen his church (it's ugly). For another, I think we "believe" or "keep the faith" by the lights of some tradition. You have to come down somewhere. I see flaws in the "Free Church" movement akin to those of the "Free Believer" impetus since the Enlightenment. So I need some kind of adjective to describe "Christian," 'cause I'm not sure that there such a thing as an unhyphenated Christian.

Chip Frontz said...

I think you're saying the same thing that Bonhoeffer said in the chapter on "Costly Grace," that Luther had the right idea but that in isolating justification from the life of discipleship, Luther's heirs(?) obscured his legacy. Of course, DB saw his own church as neutered by this error.

And yet DB in his writing was one of the fiercest advocates of justification by faith, at least in his writings. For him, his active spirituality flowed out of the life of being a justified sinner, his life only in Christ, his eyes only on Christ. As we have discussed before, I read "growth in grace" or "sanctification" to him was a process of self-forgetfulness more than anything else, of following Christ ever more closely in thanksgiving for justification.

We are agreed that Christ is not some "get out of jail free card" that we can play after living our lives for ourselves. I agree wholeheartedly that we must be about preaching and teaching the fruits of faith as part of the Christian life. My two questions are: which obedient life? (who draws up the program?); and when our own sanctification fails us, will we then be able to preach justification as the source of our confidence in Christ?